A year after 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling was seized by a masked gunman, volunteers touched by the disappearance of the kidnapped boy are planning a candlelight vigil and authorities are seeking to play down reports of a new suspect.
Stearns County Sheriff Charlie Grafft said the background of the newest suspect, a man seen in St. Joseph about three weeks ago, is being checked.The St. Cloud Times, in a story published Saturday, quoted him as saying the suspect "looks pretty promising. This may be the man we're looking for." But he said Saturday that he wasn't sure he had made such optimistic comments and added, "it's just another lead."
FBI spokesman Byron Gigler in Minneapolis said the man is among a handful of suspects the FBI still is investigating. In all, he said, about 2,000 people have been interviewed about Jacob's disappearance.
Jacob's mother, Patty Wetterling, also had a cautious outlook Saturday, saying "I just have to look at it as just one more" lead. But about the sheriff's reported comments, she said, "His spirits were up, for sure. It caught me off guard, too."
Grafft would give few details of the suspect other than that he had a car with out-of-state plates and had been seen in this central Minnesota community of 2,200.
Jacob disappeared a year ago Monday, snatched by a masked man with a gun who stopped him, his brother, Trevor, and a friend as they rode bikes home that evening along a deserted stretch of road. The other boys say the man asked them their ages, then told them to run into the woods or he would shoot.
As they fled, the boys looked back and saw the man grab Jacob's arm.
Thousands of fliers distributed nationwide, and searches by hundreds of volunteers, National Guardsmen and federal, state and local law enforcement officers failed to turn up a trace.
To mark the abduction's anniversary, the volunteers who organized the Jacob Wetterling Foundation planned simultaneous candlelight prayer services Sunday night here and in a Minneapolis suburb.
In an interview last week, Mrs. Wetterling said she and her husband, Jerry, became reluctant celebrities in the hopes the national publicity might help bring Jacob back.
"I think the thing that's hard for me right now is that Jacob has become symbolic of all missing children, and we have become this goofy false celebrity," Mrs. Wetterling said.
"The bottom line is he is my son," she said, pounding her kitchen table with her fist as she blinked back tears. "And it hurts. He's not a symbol. He's Jacob. He's my son."
Since the abduction, children in St. Joseph stopped wanting to go out after dark.
"Not only had the abductor taken Jacob physically, but he stole something from us," said Gary Degeberg, chief financial officer of the Jacob Wetterling Foundation. "An innocence we once had no longer exists."
The passage of time has weighed heavily on Mrs. Wetterling, 40, her husband, 42, and their children.
Trevor, now 11, missed 43 days of school last year. He still spends nights in his parents' bedroom on a foldout bed, unable to sleep in the bedroom he once shared with his brother. Jacob's sisters, Amy, 14, and Carmen, 9, also struggle for some normalcy.
The family has endured what authorities say are unfounded rumors that Wetterling had his son abducted, a theory that Mrs. Wetterling blames on suspicion of her husband's Baha'i religion combined with people's need for a "reasonable explanation."
Passing the spot where Jacob was kidnapped has been a daily hurdle.
"We have to drive by that stupid spot anytime we want to go anywhere," Mrs. Wetterling said. "Our choices are to stay in here for the rest of our lives or to get over it. You get over it, and you move on."
Jacob Wetterling Foundation has volunteers coordinating a nationwide distribution of posters bearing Jacob's picture and is offering a $200,000 reward for his safe return. At least 3,000 people nationwide have contributed to the reward fund, Degeberg said.
The anniversary's approach brought a harsh prediction from John Walsh, who has become a spokesman for the parents of missing children since his 6-year-old son was abducted and murdered in 1981.
Mrs. Wetterling said Walsh told her: "Pretty soon, after this one year thing that everybody wants to call an anniversary, he's going to be just another missing child."
"I said, `No, he's not,' " she said. "He will never be just another missing child."